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First record of the harbour porpoise, phocoena phocoena (Cetacea: Phocoenidae) in the Azores (NE Atlantic).


Phocoena phocoena, Azores islands, new record, Cetacea, Odontoceti

Occurrence of Phocoena phocoena (Cetacea: Phocoenidae) in the Azores

The harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is a small cetacean widely distributed on both sides of the North Atlantic. It is a coastal species seriously threatened by fishing, pollution and environmental changes (Donovan & Bjorge, 1995; Palka et al., 1996) with some populations, such as those from the Baltic, North and Black seas, drastically dwindling.

The species is included in Appendix II of Habitats Directive (EU).

References to this species in the Azores islands, the most isolated and extensive island group in the NE Atlantic (37[degrees] - 40[degrees]N; 24[degrees] - 32[degrees]W), date back to the XVIth century with the report of a stranded "boto" in Sao Miguel island (Silva et al., 2001). Since then, several authors (e.g. Drouet, 1861; Chaves, 1924; Ferreira, 1935) refer to this species as "regularly occurring in Azorean waters". It is important to note that on mainland Portugal, the harbour porpoise is also known as "toninha" which is a name used in the Azores for many dolphins, especially the common dolphin Delphinus delphis. Confusion between the common names "boto" and "toninha" may have also contributed to the continuous assumption that P. phocoena occurs in the Azores. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that other authors (e.g. Clarke, 1981; Carwardine, 1995; Farinha & Correia, 2003) consider that this species does occur in the Azores, it has never been found stranded and its occurrence was assumed to be dubious (e.g. Reiner et al., 1993; Goncalves et al., 1996).

Between 1999 and 2001 a team from the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries of the University of the Azores, whilst working on the project Mare (B4-3200/98-509) carried out a total of 3564 hours of observation, both from land stations and during cruises covering the entire archipelago. A Porpoise Click Detector was used to ascertain the presence of P. phocoena. However, there was no visual or acoustic evidence of their presence in the Azores (Silva et al., 2001).

On the 4th January 2004, a specimen of P. phocoena (Fig. 1) was found stranded on rocks exposed during low tide on the east coast of Terceira Island (38[degrees]42.520'N; 27[degrees]03.031'W).


The adult female, with a length of 161cm, presented no external wounds apart from a shark bite (Fig. 2) which we believe to have been made after the porpoise's death.


The specimen was frozen and we carried out a full post-mortem a week later. This examination showed no gross pathology. The possible cause or causes of death are yet to be determined. One important clue is that both the stomach and the intestine were completely empty. Biochemical, bacteriological and virological analyses are yet to be made. Samples of the liver, lungs, kidney, ovaries, skin and of sub-epidermal blubber were taken for genetic analysis. The skeleton was also preserved and will be deposited in the collection of the Museu Carlos Machado (provisory no MCM Phopho 1-04), Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal.

Authors such as Evans (1987) point to the fact that P. phocoena is a coastal species preferring shallow waters close to the shore. The porpoises are shy and difficult to observe: they do not bow ride or show any interest in boats.

The migration of individuals over long distances such as a crossing from European shores to the Azores, is highly improbable (Nowak 1999; Silva et al., 2001). We are therefore led to assume that a local population of P. phocoena does occur in Azorean waters and has possibly evaded detection so far because of low numbers. Further research will determine the presence and size of the local population which, if confirmed, will deserve special attention and conservation measures.

This specimen of P. phocoena increases the number of cetacean species in the Azores region to 25 (see Farinha e Correia, 2003 for the most recent list), which corresponds to roughly 30.5% of all known cetacean species. In the last 10 years, 3 additional species were added to the cetacean fauna of the Azores: In 1995, Steiner first recorded the rough toothed dolphin Steno bredanensis, and in 1996, Goncalves et al. found a stranded live dwarf sperm whale, Kogia simus specimen which was successfully returned to the sea. Phocoena phocoena is the third species to be added to the list; Goncalves et al. (1996) also refer to a highly improbable occurrence of the northern right whale Eubalaena glacialis in the Azores.


Special thanks are due to officers Isidro Vieira and Fernando None, from the Maritime Police of Praia da Vitoria, who discovered, reported and guarded the specimen. Thanks are also due to LOTACOR, S.A., specifically to Fernando Arruda and Mario Ilidio, for keeping the specimen frozen. Our colleagues from the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries of the University of the Azores, Frederico Cardigos, Ricardo Serrao Santos, Rui Prieto and Monica Silva, provided reports and bibliography. The post-mortem was performed at the Regional Veterinary Laboratory with kind help from the Director, Hernani Martins, Susana Bernardo and the technical personnel. Post-mortem photographs were taken by Pedro Manacas.


Carwardine, M. 1995. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Dorling Kindersley, London.

Chaves, F. A. 1924. Cetaceos que aparecem nos mares dos Acores. A Pesca Maritima, 15, 41-44.

Clarke, R. 1981. Whales and dolphins of the Azores and their exploitation. Report of the International Whaling Commission, 31, 607-615.

Donovan, G. P. & A. Bjorge. 1995. Harbour porpoises in the North Atlantic: edited extracted from the report of the IWC Scientific Committee, Dublin 1995. Report of the International Whaling Commission, Special Issue, 16, 3-25.

Drouet, J. L. 1861. Elements de la Faune Acoreenne. Troyes, France.

Evans, P. G. H. 1987. The Natural History of Whales and Dolphins. Oxford University Press.

Farinha, N. & F. Correia. 2003. Cetaceos dos Acores. Baleias, Golfinhos e Toninhas. Coleccao Patrimonio Natural Acoriano. Joao Azevedo Editor, Mirandela, Portugal.

Ferreira, E. 1935. Gigantes dos mares dos Acores. Acoreana, 2, 74-85.

Goncalves, J. M., J. P. Barreiros, J. M. N. Azevedo & R. Norberto. 1996. Cetaceans stranded in the Azores during 1992-1996. Arquipelago--Life and Marine Sciences, 14A, 57-65.

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, 6th Ed. Vol. III. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Palka, D. L., A. J. Read, A. J. Westgate & D. W. Johnston. 1996. Summary of current knowledge of harbor porpoises in US and Canadian Atlantic waters. Report of the International Whaling Commission, 46, 559-565.

Reiner, F., J. M. Goncalves & R. S. Santos. 1993. Two new records of Ziphiidae (Cetacea) for the Azores with an updated checklist of cetacean species. Arquipelago--Life and Marine Sciences, 11A, 113-118.

Silva, M. A., R. Prieto, S. Magalhaes, R. Cabecinhas & A. Cruz. 2001. Estatuto da conservacao do boto, Phocoena phocoena, nos Acores. Documento preparado no ambito do Projecto Life--Gestao Integrada de Zonas Costeiras e Marinhas nos Acores--Contrato LIFE B4-3200/98-509 (unpublished).

Steiner, L. 1995. Rough-toothed dolphin, Steno bredanensis: a new species record for the Azores, with some notes on behaviour. Arquipelago--Life and Marine Sciences, 13A, 125-127.

Accepted: 03.06.2005

Joao Pedro Barreiros (1), Manuel Teves (2) and Joao Rodeia (2)

University of the Azores, Dpt. of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Angra do Heroismo 9701-85, Portugal and Dpt. of Oceanography and Fisheries, Horta 9901-852, Portugal. E-mail: (corresponding author) LAMTec--Laboratory of Marine Environment and Technology, University of the Azores, Dpt. of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Angra do Heroismo 9701-851, Portugal
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Author:Barreiros, Joao Pedro; Teves, Manuel; Rodeia, Joao
Publication:Aqua: journal of ichthyology & aquatic biology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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